Though I have always loved my mother, there was a time when I was somewhat embarrassed by her. She often got on my nerves by eating strange foods, using double negatives, and making strict rules. But one night over dinner, I discovered the meaning of the words, “Don’t judge a woman until you’ve walked in her shoes.”
The day my mother told me about her past we were downtown at her favorite dim sum restaurant. The run-down facade was less than inviting, but the smell of fried noodles and pork buns lured our taste buds. The cacophony of Mandarin faded into the background, signaling the end of rush hour. We were awaiting the next food-laden cart during an awkward silence that seemed to happen whenever my mother chose to share a profound glimpse into her past with me.
My mom described that tears had run down my grandfather’s cheeks as he watched the train carry my grandmother away. In his arms lay my mother, only two at the time; she neither saw nor was able to contact her mother for the next eleven years. Soon after that, my mother was sent to military camp to be trained as a “little red guard.” My grandfather was scheduled to be executed but instead was put to work for the next seven years, during which he developed the stomach cancer that led to his death at the age of 45. My mother, meanwhile, was subjected to mental and physical torture: she had to recite Mao’s books by memory; was compelled to ransack her friends’ homes; snuck out at night to dig up raw potatoes due to her hunger, and much worse.
By the time she was 13, the Chinese Cultural Revolution was almost over, but her father was dead, her home was destroyed, and an irreconcilable rift had come between her and her mother. This was the tale she told me of the calamity that resulted in over 20 million deaths and countless scarred lives.
Shock overtook me. Her story was the most amazing thing I had ever heard, and it was true! How could I have so misunderstood my mother? She had gone through so much, it is amazing that she managed to pull her life together and raise me. A flame awoke within my heart and every day after school, I would spend hours talking to her about the Chinese Cultural Revolution and reading books about it. Often, I was brought to tears.
I wrote a speech about all of this and competed with it. I made it to the finals but the thoughts going through my head as I awaited my turn were not on last-minute preparation, but something very different. The least I could do to help bring justice to the victims of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was to inform the audience of this horrific, oft-forgotten disaster and take one small step toward preventing it from happening again. I presented the speech with a fervor I had never experienced. It was not about winning and my speech hit home. The audience understood, and so I had accomplished my goal.
The speech did bring me a first-place trophy but more important, it gave me a new understanding of my mother and me. I discovered that being half-Chinese is something of which I should be proud. My mother’s idiosyncrasies now seem trivial and are overridden by the respect I have for who she is and the hardship she has experienced. This speech inspired by a dinner conversation lit a flame of passion within me, one that will burn forever. The Chinese Cultural Revolution made me realize how lucky I am to be in this world, to have a home, provisions, and people who love me.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.